One of the most common questions I get when people hear I wrote a book is “How did you go about the daunting task of writing a whole book?” (Other common questions include “Since you’re an editor, did you have to get edited?” and “What tools does every writer need?” Answer: backup files, Pilot fine-tip pens, and large quantities of prayer and chocolate.)
It’s hard for me to answer the question about what it’s like to write a book, because the process was so much messier and less linear than I ever imagined. I’ve been around books all my life, first as a reader and for the past fourteen years as an editor. In that time, I’ve had a pretty straightforward process for tackling books: more or less starting at the beginning and making my way to the end (I have a strict no-spoilers policy).
So I was surprised when I started writing and discovered that my book couldn’t be wrangled into such a neat step-by-step process. It was stymying at first—I couldn’t quite nail down where I needed to go or what came next.
Here’s the best way I’ve found to describe what the writing felt like: at the beginning I was trying to follow a sewing pattern. I wanted rules and formulas; I wanted structure and organization and measurements. But it didn’t work. I had to throw away the pattern. And when I did, I realized that I was actually making a quilt.
And so I wrote stories, one after the other, like quilt squares, not worrying at the moment about where they would go or how they would fit into the whole. Then I literally spread these stories out on the floor of our spare bedroom. That enabled me to see where the overall direction of the book was headed. It also showed which stories didn’t fit with the colors and pattern of my quilt-book. And it helped me see which story squares worked well beside each other. Only then could I stitch it all together.
For someone who likes to know I’m doing things “right,” this approach felt a little like a literary freefall: terrifying at first, but ultimately exhilarating. And it struck me that it’s a little like life, really. So often I try to make a script for my life and follow a step-by-step pattern. But even if I could find such a set of instructions, it wouldn’t work—life just isn’t that predictable and easily pinned down.
God invites us to follow him into a life of mystery and wonder . . . into a terrifying but exhilarating freefall. We don’t know exactly how our life will turn out or where exactly he is calling us; he simply invites us to tackle one quilt square at a time. It’s not until later that we can see what he was creating in us and through us.
Now I should confess at this point that these sewing metaphors are purely hypothetical for me. My maternal grandmother is a master seamstress. She sewed all three of her daughter’s wedding dresses and the accompanying bridesmaid dresses, and she made afghans for each of her grandchildren when we graduated from high school. But much to her consternation, her eldest granddaughter has dropped the sartorial baton. My sewing skills are limited to reattaching errant buttons, and even at that, the backside would make a sparrow’s nest look tidy.
Recently I received a gift that feels like the visual equivalent of what it felt like to write a book. My friend Lory, a quilter and a writer herself, made me a beautiful writing-themed quilt. It’s been put together piece by piece, stitch by stitch, and I can feel the love threaded into every part.
There’s something gratifying about putting love and planning and work into something, whether it’s a quilt or a book or a song or a meal, and then being able to see it or taste it or hold it in your hands. And then to be able to share it with someone else? Well, that’s almost like a piece of glory in your own living room.
When God made us, I have to believe he experienced that same kind of delight in his creations. He stitched together our DNA, planned out hair color and personality traits, and planted dreams and desires in us. And he no doubt revels in what he’d made. His creations are no assembly-line productions; there are no two the same. You are a one-of-a-kind creation, and he is utterly delighted by you.
We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
What masterpiece are you working on as we begin a new year? What would it look like to throw away the pattern and embrace the messy work of creating?
Lory Harris says
I couldn’t agree more! On all levels – quilting, writing and living. There is wonder in the process – wonder how it will turn out? wonder when I’ll ever get done? wonder if others will cherish my creation as much as I do? and wonder of wonders, it becomes what it should be! Thank you for helping my wonders become reality! Blessings!
Thanks for giving me such a beautiful metaphor for the writing process that I can wonder at every day!
This was absolutely perfect for me to think of writing as quilting….thank you!!
Happy writing to you, my friend!
Ginger Kauffman says
My masterpiece has been messy from the start, with no pattern, no clear sense of what the outcome will be or how it will look, and no preconceptions about how to approach it. (We talked about it during our time together at NCWA last year. I wonder if you remember that conversation.) But little by little I see progress toward something wonderful that the Lord has in mind. I’m grateful that he has tapped me on the shoulder to partner with him in the project. I think your term, “literary freefall” applies.
Thank you for this post and for finding words for this experience. And thanks to Lory for the beautiful quilt that inspired the blog post.
I do remember our wonderful conversation, Ginger, and I trust that God will give you the creativity and stitches you need for the process. I can’t wait to see the beautiful result!
Kristen Joy Wilks says
Not only does that quilt have a book theme, it makes me want to curl up and read a book just looking at it. What a beautiful gift! I think that is a beautiful way of looking at writing a book. I’ve always tried to be linear as well, but I’ll need to keep this post in mind to remind myself that sometimes you have to take some back roads. Thank you, Stephanie.
You have some beautiful, creative stories in you, Kristen! Can’t wait to see how the Creator continues to work through you!
Rachel Quigley says
What masterpiece am I working on this year? Becoming a better leader and growing outside of my comfort zone. I’m not really sure what this is all going to look like but I know it’s a necessary step. Thanks for these encouraging words. I love how you explained your process in writing your book. That makes sense to me and gives me some ideas for a writing project this year! Thank you! 🙂
That’s an exciting (and sometimes scary) place to be, Rachel! May God give you creativity and great wisdom as you lead.
Love this, Stephanie!! Such a beautiful way of looking at creativity and being in the image of our Creator. Thank you!! I am reinspired to begin writing again
Yay! I can’t wait to see what your book-quilt looks like!
The quilt is such a helpful visual for the creative process! Thank you for sharing your words, Stephanie. I’m starting to piece together a book myself from a messy pile of “scrap” writings, but the quilt metaphor helps it feel less overwhelming. I’m exciting for what God will piece together from my work!